Stage school

The Motley theatre design course has had a huge impact on the dramatic arts since its inception more than 40 years ago. Maeve Hosea assesses the continuing legacy of the course and its current director Alison Chitty

Nearly a decade has passed since the world waited nervously for survivors of the ill-fated Russian nuclear submarine Kursk to be rescued from the bottom of the ocean. A theatrical dramatisation of this event was performed at the Young Vic in London last year and won the London Evening Standard award for theatre design.

’I wanted to create a totally submersive experience for the audience, where they made up the total crew number on the submarine and felt the cramped, sweaty conditions,’ explains the show’s designer, Jon Bausor.

The set design – a blown-up, deconstructed version of the craft’s interior – suggests the effect of small, detailed pockets of reality. It facilitates the merging of human interest and theatrical excitement in the script.

The design inspiration for the show – called, naturally enough, Kursk – was a distillation of research carried out on a dry-docked Trafalgar-class submarine. This authenticity, combined with an abstract interpretation, created a distinctive design. ’It is a remarkable piece of work,’ comments David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic. ’It has a Cubist feel, with the elements of a submarine’s construction broken up around the theatre.’

Striking images of bunk beds, mess rooms and cabins galvanise the story, and the text, as in all of Bausor’s work, calls the tune. ’It was a new experience, in that the play was written as we conceived the design and concept for the production so, ultimately, we ended up with a totally complete work,’ says Bausor. ’But I try to [produce] stage designs and clothes that create a world for the play to breathe in, rather than being bolt-on decorations.’

Hilary Vernon-Smith, head scenic artist at the National Theatre in London, has worked with a host of both emerging and established designers. ’The key to being a good designer is not just having your own style, but to work with a whole team of people on a project,’ she says. ’In this area, you are not a fine artist – you have to adapt your design to the collaboration.’

While Bausor depicted the setting for sailors stranded beneath the ocean, Alison Chitty – the subject of a current exhibition at the National Theatre – entranced the audience at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden with strikingly simple designs for The Minotaur, the epic story of a man trapped in a labyrinth. A figure of a half-man, half-beast, his human face glimpsed through a latticed bovine mask, is the centre of the drama. Here, a clean line is coupled with simplicity to create awesome, spare, abstract designs.

There is a tradition that comes from the Motley theatre design course – where Chitty is director and Bausor an alumnus – of honesty and faith to the text, and of producing a refined design around it rather than a peg to advertise a designer’s skills.

’As a designer you need to know how to work with the text of the play, and [you] cannot separate the design from it,’ says another Motley graduate, Aleš Valášek. ’Theatre design is more part of the performing arts discipline than it might appear on first sight.’

Valášek is a rising star, having won the prestigious Linbury Prize in 2009 for his proposed staging of Going Dark, a story of contemporary man’s struggle to engage with reality, understand his place in the universe and what it can possibly mean to him each day.

This style of theatre design looks for ways to present something that speaks clearly to the moment and the contemporary audience. Valášek finds his muse anywhere and everywhere. ’I keep my eyes open and look around me, and my inspiration is always different according to the project that I design,’ he says. ’Sometimes it can be a work of art, but at other times it is a scene from everyday life that I might see in a supermarket.’

Emerging designer Sarah Bacon, currently working on a new play, Still The Blackbird Sings, says she has the confidence to achieve a visual impact on stage because of her rigorous education at Motley. ’I have gained ground in working on instinct, and not overwhelming a piece – paying attention to detail on the costumes and the props, rather than the set, and having the set quite abstract,’ she explains.

Live performance combined with pre-recorded image and sound last summer in a new version of Greek tragedy Medea/Medea designed by Bacon, which explored the concept of theatre and what myth means for society and the individual today.

’Dylan Tighe, the director, was clear that everything must have meaning, and nothing on stage [was] gratuitous to the performance,’ says Bacon. ’We painted the black box [the performance space] white and put a black gauze between the actors and the audience, thus creating a [virtual] fourth wall [on the stage].’

By the conceit of exposing design elements such as props to the audience, the aim was to seemingly lay bare any theatrical devices. All props used in the production were on show from the beginning, hanging from a pin board wall on the set. Then, against a beautiful and eerie soundscape, pre-recorded actors’ voices and pyrotechnics were used to unsubtle and unsettling effect.

Alison Chitty/ Design Process 1970-2010, runs until 28 March at the National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1

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